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What They Really Want to Do is Direct

A candid assessment of the work of some notable choreographers, writers, and actors turned directors. logo

Susan Stroman
Now that Thou Shalt Not has closed, I've been thinking about what went wrong with the show, and it occurred to me that it had something specific in common with many other artistic failures: It was directed by someone (in this case, Susan Stroman) who came late to direction from another discipline (in this case, choreography).

The list of actors, choreographers, writers, etc., who have floundered when they've attempted to direct is a long one. Kathleen Marshall provided nifty choreography for such shows as Kiss Me, Kate but did not distinguish herself as director of the Second Stage production of the early Stephen Sondheim musical Saturday Night. Mark Bramble may have co-written the book for 42nd Street with Michael Stewart but, ironically, his direction of the book scenes of the Broadway revival is atrocious. And I for one am convinced that By Jeeves died a quick death not because the show itself is awful but because, as director of the production, author Alan Ayckbourn had his cast perform in an unbearably arch style that prompted audiences to leave in droves at intermission.

The thing is, it's very difficult to become a director; you almost always have to start somewhere else, often as a stage manager or production assistant. Four of the greatest musical theater directors in Broadway history--Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Bob Fosse, and Michael Bennett--started as dancers, then became choreographers before adding direction to their lists of accomplishments. And Harold Prince spent years as a producer before he felt he had learned enough to occupy the directorial chair, thereafter helming some of the most unforgettable musical productions of the last century.

The men cited above may well have yearned to direct from the outset of their respective careers but found it easier to start somewhere else, whereas other dancers, choreographers, actors, etc., perhaps chose to turn themselves into directors simply because they wanted to increase their employment options. For example: Gabriel Barre got a Tony Award nomination (in a lean year!) for his performance in Starmites and may have then decided to become a director, at least in part, because he felt his subsequent roles would be limited by his advancing age and his physical type. Unfortunately, his staging of The Wild Party for the Manhattan Theater Club was terribly derivative; nor did Barre provide sufficient guidance to keep the innately talented young Ryan Driscoll's performance as Hermie in Summer of '42 from becoming overly broad and cartoonish. Walter Bobbie had a decent acting career, then found himself in the right place at the right time (with the right collaborators) as director of the Chicago revival, but he didn't have the know-how to solve the tremendous problems of Footloose. In directing A Class Act on Broadway and the New York Philharmonic performances of Sweeney Todd, actor Lonny Price made some odd decisions that might not have been made by someone with more directorial experience.

Several notable writers have moved into directing with mixed results. Arthur Laurents authored two of the greatest musical theater books of all time for West Side Story and Gypsy, but his direction of two revivals of the latter show and the original production of La Cage aux Folles was not exemplary. And though Martin Charnin wrote some fine lyrics for Annie, his direction of the production that starred Nell Carter was painfully inept: Carter came across as mean, angry, and tremendously unpleasant in a role that's meant to be hilarious, and the pacing of the show was positively Pinteresque. (It's interesting to note that Charnin received an "entire production directed by" credit for his efforts, almost always a hint that the person thus credited is deservedly insecure.)

A scene from A Class Act
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
I could go on--and I will, for a little bit longer. Arlene Phillips started as a choreographer and hadn't learned enough about direction by the time she took on Saturday Night Fever to keep that show from seeming ridiculous. Baayork Lee may know A Chorus Line like the back of her hand as a performer and choreographer but, as a director, she allowed (or instructed) the cast of a recent tour of the show that played at the Paper Mill in New Jersey to deliver some of the weirdest line readings I've ever heard.

It's not surprising that choreographers turned directors tend to do well in terms of blocking and stage pictures but are often flummoxed by dialogue. Graciela Daniele did an excellent job in directing the virtually through-sung Once On This Island but was ill equipped to deal with the book scenes of Annie Get Your Gun. Which brings us back to Susan Stroman, who won Tonys for directing and choreographing the dance show Contact but whose Music Man revival was utterly humorless. Though Stroman was Tonyed again for her direction of The Producers, I am apparently not alone in guessing that this screamingly funny show may have benefited greatly from the directorial input of co-author/lyricist Mel Brooks. Of course, only those who were present at rehearsals could say for sure to what extent the show's book scenes were actually directed by Stroman; but, given her work on The Music Man, I'm inclined to think that the answer is, "Not much."

In panning Thou Shalt Not, several critics bent over backwards to say that this was to be viewed as a momentary lapse in the career of a highly respected theater artist. With all of this good will behind her, Stroman may continue her on-the-job training as a director--and audiences may or may not continue to pay to observe her progress. Or she may eventually decide that she has more to offer as a choreographer and realize that there's no disgrace in leaving the driving to others.

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